Latina Struggles: Challenges Within the Culture

Discussing dysfunctions within a minority culture that already experiences oppression and discrimination by mainstream white society is a difficult thing to do. Many women of color—Asian, Indian, and Black women understand sexist treatment from both dominant white society and from their cultures. Black women have courageously written about the unique oppression as women of color from Sojourner Truth’s Ain’t I a Woman to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s pathbreaking article in the late1980s, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Anti-discrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” to the writings of Audre Lorde, and bell hooks to name a few. These and many other women of color have provided the foundation for analyses that examine how multiple identities such as race, class and gender result in increased oppression for women of color that are separate from those of white women. The same is true for Latinas.

The unequal treatment of Latinos in many aspects of traditional Latino culture is one of the greatest dysfunctions of our culture. And my study on Latino lawyers demonstrates that even for Latina professionals, this dysfunction does not easily go away. It is evident within the law firm and it is also evident in many traditional Latino families.

For example, Josefa one of the Latina attorneys I interviewed had this to say about sexism in the firm environment:

I see women more involved. Men often get the limelight, but women do the work….What’s ironic is that women are not reaping the benefits and success that men generally experience as a result of community involvement. All you have to do is look at the rate of women making partnership in firms. The percentage is absolutely dismal.

Reflecting on her time in law firms, Josefa commented,

There is such isolation. Even after you ‘make it,’ you are probably the only Latina or the only woman of color. You are always viewed as the outsider, with little support to help you succeed. No one tells you of the land mines because, frankly, you make them uncomfortable and they really want you to go away. . . . Perhaps it is our past that prevents Latinas from fitting into a profession where people frequently come from very privileged backgrounds.

Latinas experience sexism in our culture as well. As one Latina respondent shared with me,

When I was in law school and I’d go to Latino dances with my friends, we would have to lie to the guys so they would ask us to dance again.

She and her friends discovered that once they revealed they were law school students they would not get asked to dance again. So they developed the strategy of telling the Latinos whom they were interested in dancing with again that they were secretaries in order to be asked for more dances. Sharing this experience made her laugh. However, she quickly stopped laughing and said that one of her greatest personal challenges has been with her traditional Latino family stating it has been very difficult “to be taken seriously . . . being taken seriously that this was my career choice and that I would be good at it.”

Many of the Latina respondents also expressed feeling trapped between unreasonably rigid gender roles in Latino culture and stereotypes and limitations from mainstream society. As one Latina attorney from Seattle stated:

I think people need to understand the challenges of becoming a lawyer in spite of our culture that expects different from us, from our families that expect less from us, from our husbands that are not always supportive. The fact that in our culture humbleness is a virtue but not in American culture. That culturally we sometimes feel caught between acting as advocates for Latinos in an American system or acting as Americans representing foreigners.

In fairness, many Latinos recognize the problem with traditional sexist roles in Latino culture as well. One of the male Latino attorneys relayed the following experience during one of his volunteer Latino youth educational outreach efforts:

One thing during undergraduate work at the business school, once in a while they sent out brochures and those kinds of things, and we asked high school students from Eastern Washington, especially [which] is where we were trying to focus. You know, get them here to the U [the University of Washington] so they can experience it. And I remember one response from this high school girl that she really wanted to come but her parents felt that a girl’s position was in the house. So you had those cultural barriers as well.

Rigid gender roles hurt the entire Latino community, are recognized by both Latinos and Latinas, and unfortunately, are also perpetuated by both Latinos and Latinas. Until we face this dysfunction in our culture we hold ourselves back. I am not saying that white culture isn’t sexist, but Latinas and other women of color have to fight for equality, respect, and freedom not just within dominant mainstream society, but also within their own families and culture.

We have to fight being oppressed and controlled at many levels. And my study on Latino lawyers’ experience underscores this huge problem. There is a long entrenched historical pattern of unequal treatment and even the devaluing of Latinas in traditional Latino culture. Ignoring these challenges within our culture will only keep us all down.


  1. Joe

    Thanks for the good post. To what extent is there a feminist movement among Latinas these days? And how much of the sexism on the part of men comes from imbibing the white misogynistic culture of US, and how much from home countries/cultures’ own misogyny?

  2. ThirtyNine4Ever

    I find this especially interesting living in an area with such a high latino/a population. I haven’t really noticed any problems myself before I read this but now that I think about it I realize that the latnia’s really have a harder time advancing whereever I have been. Once these things are pointed out to me I can never believe I somehow was able to not only ignore them but be completely unaware of them. There are tons “benefits” of being a white male and having success in spite of ignorance is one of them I guess.

    • Blaque Swan

      There are tons “benefits” of being a white male and having success in spite of ignorance is one of them I guess.

      Spread the word among your fellow white males, please!

  3. Maria Chavez Author

    Thanks you for the questions and comments. I’ll try to address them as honestly as I can but I have to qualify that my knowledge/perspective comes from being raised a Latina in the U.S. and not in a Latin American country, which is a totally different experience for Latinas.

    First, there are definitely feminist Latinas, strong Latinas who have because of class reasons, as well as reasons of self-empowerment always worked outside the home. There have been also been civically active groups of Latinas such as Mothers of East L.A. that fought to keep jails and toxic dump sites out of their neighborhoods. There are also a lot of great writings from strong Latinas who discuss issues of sexism, homophobia, racism etc. such as Gloria Anzaluda and Ana Castillo to name a few.

    I’m not sure where the “machismo” in Latino culture came from. I know it means something different in Latin America than in does in the U.S. and since I was raised in the U.S. my understanding of its meaning/role in Latin American cultures is limited, but I do know it includes taking care of the family, honor, protection etc. However, what I have witnessed and studied in the U.S. is the distortion of it in American society: where being born a girl in a man’s world and being born a woman of color in a white world can pose many challenges as some of the quotes from my study demonstrate. When the “protection or honoring” of the daughters turns into not letting them do what others are required of them to succeed in America or what other American girls do such as move away from college to live in the dorms but the Latinos can because there is a need to protect the girls “honor” and “reputation” and that standard isn’t there for the males, then it turns into something that hurts the entire culture. Or when the sexism turns into Latinas having more responsibilities expected of them in the home front than the Latinos then this hurts both Latinos as well as Latinas. It can make Latinos less responsible to societal expectations and Latinas have greater struggles, even to the point of putting your education aside to help out the family in whatever way is expected or as in the case of one of the Latina lawyers, not being supported or taken seriously enough to consider law as a career because you’re a girl. When it means you don’t look after your daughters financially in the same way as you do your sons because after all the expectation is that they will have a husband do it, so fairness in the family isn’t an issue then that hurts the culture. There are so many examples.

    So, how much of the sexism on the part of men comes from imbibing the white misogynistic culture of US, and how much from home countries/cultures’ own misogyny? This is a very complex question.

    I have no doubt the sexism in Latino U.S. culture has gotten twisted because of the disempowerment of Latinos in the U.S. in general. Certainly having to balance two different cultures is difficult for both males and females, especially when one’s culture is not accepted and looked down upon.

    Perhaps in this context one is forced to exaggerate the old ways as a way to hold on to some kind of dignity, sense of worth, or control. It could be religious too: women are expected (at least in Catholic religion) to be virgins until married, to not question authority, are given few career choices (teaching or nursing maybe) and certainly to put one’s family above all else, or you are seen as selfish. Daughter, wife, mother. Those are the choices from a Catholic Latino standpoint.

    But I know there is more to it than this. It seems most societies have preferred males over females, heterosexuals over homosexuals, and at least in Western society, white over dark. Regardless of the root of this situation, Latinos need to begin addressing these critical issues in an honest, open, and loving way.

  4. sumaya123

    to be honest I am was just watching switched at birth and one of the characters started talking about how being Latina can be very difficult than being white. I personally think that the majority of white population have more opportunities than any other race or color. not just in America in across the world. Just because your white people think you can get away with anything. Well in other races like blacks and people of color are always treated differently. Weather people like it or not white is always dominating the everything. China are so smart people but the people recognize their talents they just come the about their looks and not their talents. People always expect to be treated by white doctors and nurses all of sudden they see a person of color they feel unfordable.


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